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Leaving Tracks Through Life

    "I think that's what we're all most terrified about... that we'll just die and disappear and we'll leave no trace."
  • Daniel Clowes


The sugary dunes of White Sands National Monument stretched into the distance... far to the west where they abutted the Organ Mountains outside Las Cruces.

The sun would soon dip below the peaks, and we hurried to explore our sandy playground. Near the parking lot, the surface had been a jumble, roughed up by hundreds of tourists shuffling here and there with cameras, coolers, Frisbees and pets. There, it was a sand pile, a maze of human and vehicle tracks - nothing exceptional.

We walked toward empty space, shushing through the drifts, ankle deep in the powdery stuff... hoping for a pristine stretch or a wind-carved dune no one had traversed. We walked until traffic noises and human chatter faded away behind us. Soon, in the twilight, it was just us and the tracks that stretched out behind.

Atop a large dune, its surface softly etched by the wind, we waited. For what? For the sunset? For the moonrise? For the loud tourists to leave? For the coyotes out in the blue shadows to sound off? Maybe, but mostly we just let time and sand drift by.

We weren't afraid of losing our way back. The dunes glowed pearly white in the light of a nearly full moon. It rose quickly, overpowering the glow over Alamogordo to the east and gradually erasing the stars that twinkled overhead.

For a few minutes we sat atop that unblemished dune and enjoyed the night. Our surroundings were well lit, and our moon shadows kept us company. Behind us, the route back to our Jeep was clearly marked by a meandering set of tracks, captured by the moon's glow on the white sand. We weren't lost.

It's funny how it's in our nature to make tracks, leave our mark, carve a niche or make it known to the world that we exist, that we were here. No one wants to disappear unnoticed.

For centuries, hundreds of civilizations rose, thrived and often failed, leaving their marks in a variety of ways. The Egyptians left the pyramids and temples, often built by slaves who recorded their history on parchment. The Celts somehow upended giant stones in mysterious ways still being debated on three-digit TV channels. Ancient man left petroglyphs and cave paintings. Others constructed giant walls, statues, monuments and mounds. And others, somewhat less grandiose, carved their names on tree trunks, stacked rocks at canyon entrances or sprayed graffiti on bridge abutments.

It's human nature to leave tracks. We snap photos, put words to paper, apply paint to canvas, write songs and build monuments... all to document our passing. We leave trails in the hearts of our loved ones... hopefully, pleasant ones that lead down paths filled with joy and good memories.

Everyone leaves tracks. Most of us try to limit the damage we do by staying on the trails, picking up our own trash, being considerate of others and leaving things as we found them - whether in the wilderness or at a co-workers desk.

Others tromp mindlessly through the flower gardens of life, damaging, destroying and leaving a mess in their wake. You know people like that. They may not leave trails of desolation, but they do damage nonetheless - through carelessness, neglect, thoughtless actions, harsh treatment, hateful words and mean-spirited dealings.

Most of us who enjoy our surroundings live by the principle of "taking nothing but pictures, leaving nothing but footprints." I like that idea. When I see the trash along the highways and discarded beer cans in the desert, I wish more did.

Back on the White Sands, when we finally gave in to the night and retraced our tracks to the parking lot, we took our water bottles and snack bar wrappers with us. We didn't fret about our twin trails scarring the pristine surface of the dunes, for we knew that nature repairs the waves of sand on a daily basis. In just a few hours, the morning breeze would begin to mend the tracks we had made and by mid-day there would be no evidence of our passing.

Later, another couple, camera in hand, might venture to the same dune, gaze out on that ocean of sand, allowing the moments to pass and imagining that they too were the first to stand in that spot.

We had left no trace except for the memory of that magical evening on the dunes and our twin tracks in the moonlight. That's really all we need.


Dave Berry is the retired editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His Focal Point column ran every Wednesday for three yeasr. This one was published on Oct. 14, 2015.

Photo: Our footsteps were the first to cut a path across the dune we followed at White Sands National Monument... at least for this day. (Photo by Dave Berry, 2007)

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